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How Television Handles Stories of Refugees and the Undocumented

While stories that directly depict the stories of refugees and asylum seekers seem few and far between, even in the increasingly more crowded content landscape of television, sometimes such tales can be hiding in plain sight.

“What is ‘Game of Thrones’ if not the story of Jon Snow, who saves a bunch of refugees, gets killed by his people for doing so, gets brought back from the dead, and survived the politics of his nation, then goes beyond the Wall to start his own chapter of Amnesty International?” pointed out Rafael Agustin at the ATX Television Festival on Saturday.

Agustin, who is a writer on “Jane The Virgin,” took part in a panel entitled “Storytellers on the Frontlines of Change: The Refugee & Asylum Seeker Crisis,” which was led by Amnesty International’s tactical campaign manager Ashley Houghton and was designed to foster more thought towards and progress of more direct representation of refugees’ stories.

Beyond the potential these larger narrative parallels could have, writer and producer Elisabeth R. Finch used the series she works on, “Grey’s Anatomy,” as an example of television’s inherent ability to create empathy for its characters, regardless of their background.

“We’re dealing with life and death every day and in every episode. It’s right there,” Finch explained. “So, in terms of connecting to people on the worst day of their lives, there’s the opportunity to connect with someone saying, ‘I need help.’”

Other series, notably the recently-canceled “One Day at a Time,” ended up having their intentions transform along with the larger world. As co-creator Mike Royce explained, they’d wrapped production on the first season on Labor Day of 2016. By the time it aired, the presidential election had brought a sweeping, and unexpected, change to the national conversation.

“The show that we did was introduced to America in a completely different context than we were anticipating,” said Royce, who added that their initial concerns about the series seemed mundane in comparison to what they became.

“Politically speaking, it was much more important to us to put this family on television, and create empathy through — and this is too big a word for this — normalization. Look, it’s your neighbors. Oh, they’re Latino. And you shouldn’t be thinking about that because there are all kinds of different people in America. Once the election happened, we talked doing a show about undocumented immigration. But the family’s Cuban, it’s a whole different issue, and we found a way in, because we were going to own that part of the story, and really shine the light on how it’s different for Cubans.”

In doing so, the series revealed that the parents of the character Carmen (Ariela Barer) were undocumented, which Royce said was a way to lessen the stigma of the issue itself.

“To me, this is just a person that you like, and you find out this thing about them,” said Royce. “It just took on such a magnified impact because of the way the Trump administration was treating people — of all kinds.”

Still, it was pointed out that, thanks to a diversity of voices being brought in both in front of and behind the cameras, progress is being made. As “The Terror: Infamy” showrunner Alexander Woo pointed out, his series not only infuses horror with the story of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, but does so largely in their own language.

“About half of my show is in Japanese, and another fraction is in Spanish, and [AMC] hasn’t balked yet. It’s been OK. And I don’t think our viewership will balk.”

 

Pictured: Alexander Woo at the ATX Television Festival

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